Learning lyrics in a new language

The Lower Primary class I teach at the Melbourne English Language School is very sweet – lots of energy and goodwill, and an impressive ability to focus as a group and make some coherent music together. This term we have been with two traditional songs from Canada (Iroquois, I belive) – Ho ho watanay and Canoe song.

Both these songs can be accompanied with a simple 2-chord pattern. I tend to play them in D minor, with the second chord being C. The chord progression is Dmin | Dmin | C | Dmin.

It’s been a lovely project. We’ve worked out some accompanying patterns on glockenspiels, which they’ve invented themselves, and we’ve added in some drums. We’ve tried singing both Ho ho watanay and The Canoe Song as partner songs, and we’ve tried them as rounds.

For these young English learners, Ho ho watanay is the simpler of the two, as the lyrics are repetitive, and are just a series of simple sounds to be memorised:

Ho ho watanay, ho ho watanay

Ho ho watanay, kee-o-ka-na kee-o-ka-na

The Canoe song is more complicated, with lots of unfamiliar English words:

My paddle’s clean and bright, flashing with silver

Follow the wild goose flight, Dip, dip and swing.

They picked up on the ‘Dip, dip and swing’ line first and have always sung that with gusto. However, they struggle with ‘Follow the wild goose flight’ – lots of words, lots of syllables, a d-ending followed by a g- beginning… and other similar challenges. Last week I devised some simple warm-up games to get them to repeat this line and become more confident with it:

  1. Pass The Sound – this is a Game we play every week, where a single sound (usually a clap, a ssshh, or other vocal or body percussion sounds) gets passed one by one around the circle. It’s like Chinese Whispers except the intention is for the sound to copied accurately every time. To bring the focus on the lyrics, I passed around single words like ‘follow’ or ‘goose’ or ‘wild’. Then I strung two words together, such as ‘wild goose’ and ‘goose flight’. Then we moved onto three-word strings – ‘wild goose flight’ or ‘follow the wild’. Lastly we sent the whole phrase ‘follow the wild goose flight’ around the circle. The children enjoyed the predictability of this game, but it also gave them a chance to hear their own voice pronouncing these unfamiliar sounds (and to hear that others in the group were also struggling).
  2. How Many Words? – I know that when I am learning a new language it helps if I can visualise how the sounds separate into different words. I asked the Lower Primary children to tell me how many words were in each line of the song (particularly this difficult line) by counting on their fingers as they said the line aloud.
  3. Hocketting– Lastly we said the line one word at a time, around the circle. Then we tried saying the whole song like this.

The children remained engaged throughout all these tactics. It gave me a chance to hear and assist the children who are often very silent during singing tasks, and to encourage them to try these words aloud, and in the context of the song. The singing of the song became much more confident. I’ll have to wait until next Tuesday to find out how much has been retained!

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1 comment so far

  1. […] The first game I taught was stick passing game that I learned as a stone-passing game from a South African musician. I’ve written in some detail about this game in the past, and the song, Bhombela, that I often teach with it. With the MTeach group, we experimented with passing the sticks in a duple time signature and singing a song in a triple time signature (Edelweiss) or a changing time signature (Dham Dham Dham – a children’s song from India). How could you build upon these starting ideas, I asked the group, in order to develop a more intricate, varied compositional outcome? One group took on this task, and developed some complex stick passing patterns that included tapping two sticks together, tapping one on the floor, and passing it around after a set number of taps in a 7/4 time signature, which they then varied into other time signatures by changing the number of floor taps. They also experimented with dividing into two groups and having unison sections contrasting with polyrhythmic sections (with each group working in a different time signature). They also explored hocketting melodies while passing sticks… at which point things start to get more complicated than the timeframe allowed! (More thoughts on hocketting here). […]


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